by Rev. Doug Gray
As some of you know, I grew up in Hollywood, CA, and that meant having colorful characters around. Though we lived in a modest, quiet neighborhood, Alan Hale, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island lived a couple of streets over. Michael Jackson shopped at our grocery store and attended the same elementary school I did. And down the street from us lived the deGarza family. They had a nice pool in the backyard and their son, Jeffrey, was just a year or two younger than my younger brother. My Mom struck up a relationship with Mrs. DeGarza and we went over to their house to go swimming. While we were there, I heard Mrs. DeGarza and others say things to Jeffrey like, “You’re such a lazy boy! You’re good for nothing.” Frequently they called him, “the little monster.” Anyone ever been called hurtful names? I’m guessing all of us have. When some called you names, how did that make you feel?
In Isaiah, other countries have been calling Israel all sorts of names. “Ha ha! Babylon won the war, knocked down your walls, took your leaders, and made your country a wasteland. Hey, your name isn’t Israel after all. I bet your name is ‘Deserted’ because not only are your streets deserted, but your God deserted you!’ ‘No wait,’ said someone else. ‘I know, your name is ‘Desolate.’ Your country is a wasteland and no one loves you.” From where the Jews sat in Babylon, there seemed to be a lot of truth to those names. That’s what really hurts about the names people call us. We start to wonder, “Maybe it’s true.”
But the worst hurt comes when we start calling ourselves names and really mean it. How many of you have ever been so mad at yourself that you said something like, “I can’t believe you did that. You are so stupid!” The times when we are most likely to do that is when we fail at something, and (if you are like me) we are the nastiest about it we make a promise and blow it. This is often especially true when we try to change long-standing habits and fail. If we try to change and blow it enough times, we begin to say things to ourselves like, “You are such a loser. What a failure.” And that can take us down a dark road into depression, tension, anger and despair. Calling ourselves these names may even make it more likely that we will blow it again, and when we do, that takes us further down the road in a vicious cycle that makes our lives seem darker and darker. Whether other people call us names or we call ourselves names, when we believe all the rottenness that comes at us, we become slaves. Slaves? Oh yes, we can be dominated by these ideas about who we are. If we let them, they will rule our lives and darken our days. Paul writes, “…when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.”
Lots of forces push against us every day, trying to name us, to define us. Those who sell things try to persuade us to define ourselves with their products. They define us by their stuff and they make money. The powerful call us ‘powerless’ so that they can have more power. Bullies will try to label us ‘weak’ so they can push us around, use or abuse us for their own gratification. Others will label us ‘immoral’ so they can feel all goodie-two-shoes about themselves. The forces that name us want us to believe they are the ones that matter, that we have to “give them their due,” that “that’s just the way it is.” It’s so easy to fall into a place where we feel boxed in and hopeless in the face of this, more subtle name-calling. That’s just where these people, these forces, want us to be.
And if we are honest, we do our own name-calling, don’t we? Sometimes we internalize the messages we receive and pass them on to others. We do it with our words, our actions, our thoughts and our dreams. We participate in the “name-calling” when we don’t stand up for those who are being bullied or treated unjustly. We participate in the “name-calling” when we show less honor to someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, or socio-economic status. Oh yes, we do our own name-calling, don’t we?
To my knowledge, there is only one way out of slavery to the name-calling, only one way out of bondage to our habits, and that path lies through Jesus. Jesus knows what to do with the names that others give us and the ones that we give ourselves. And Jesus can transform us by His grace, so that we can uncouple ourselves from these forces and stop the negative name-calling we do. Paul writes “now that you have come to know God, or more importantly to be known by God…” When our oldest, Morgan, was in elementary school, she went through a period where she got sadder and quieter. When we asked her about it, she shared that she was being bullied. It had started with name-calling. We asked her what kinds of names do they call you, and she told us. “And you believed her?” we asked. “Do we call you those things?” She shook her head. “Why would you believe her? She doesn’t even know you!” Imagine how much more we are known by God, how the grace of God defines us, how we can be transformed just by believing that we are loved!
That’s what God longs to do with each of us. When we give our hearts and lives over to Jesus, God tells us our real names. They are who we really are, the persons God created each of us to be. For the children of Israel, God was going to change their name from “Deserted” to “My Delight Is in Her.” Instead of “Desolate,” God was going to make her “Married” because of God’s great love and God’s great desire for intimacy and trust with the children of Israel…and with us. In Galatians, Paul talks about how the name “Slave” is replaced with “Son” or “Daughter.” And the implications of that are huge: we are wanted; we are loved; we are provided for; we will never be alone; we can talk with God and know God listen. Paul even writes that because our name is no longer “Slave” but “Son” or “Daughter,” we can actually call God, “Daddy.” God wants us to come close!
Not long after our pool times at the deGarza house began, Mom asked if Jeffrey would like to come to our house before nursery school and then Mom would take him. It added a certain amount of craziness to our family life and seemed unnecessary to me, so I asked Mom why she would offer to do this with Jeffrey. She said, “I wanted there to be at least one place where people spoke kindly to him.” She paused, then added, “People tend to become what they are called. If you call someone “little monster” long enough, pretty soon they begin to believe it. I wanted Jeffrey to hear people call him the names God has for him.” And that’s our mission! Sure, this is a great time to consider leaving our old ways and our old selves behind, to let God erase the old, negative names we have been called or have called ourselves, and to ask God to share with us our real names. But this is also a great time for us to decide to use the God-given names for people, rather than the ones others have come up with. What if, like the Jesus, we set about the work of erasing the rottenness of the world’s names for people, and reminded them instead of the names God gave them?